“Sansa already looked her best. She had brushed out her long auburn hair until it shone, and picked her nicest blue silks. She had been looking forward today for more than a week. It was a great honor to ride with the queen, and besides Prince Joffrey might be there. Her betrothed. Just thinking it made her feel a strange fluttering inside…Sansa did not really know Joffrey yet, but she was already in love with him. He was all she ever dreamt her prince should be.”
“Sansa could not take her eyes off the third man…a terror as overwhelming as anything Sansa Stark had ever felt filled her suddenly…The queen had descended from the wheelhouse. The spectators parted to make way for her. “If the wicked do not fear the King’s Justice, you have put the wrong man in the office.”
Synopsis: “Once upon a time,” Sansa Stark readies herself for a special day with Queen Cersei and Princess Myrcella, and fails to come to an understanding with her sister Arya over the relative merits of the countryside, riding, lemon cakes, and the royal prerogative. On her way to the royal wheelhouse, she meets Ser Barristan Selmy and Renly Baratheon, but Ilyn Payne and Sandor Clegane make more of an impression. To recover from this shock, her fiancé takes her out for a ride and nothing bad or fateful happens at all.
SPOILER WARNING: This chapter analysis, and all following, will contain spoilers for all Song of Ice and Fire novels and Game of Thrones episodes. Caveat lector.
I wasn’t sure at first how to approach this chapter, since virtually nothing political actually happens and I wanted to think through the historical questions thoroughly. It also doesn’t help that Sansa Stark is one of the more controversial protagonists in the series, with a significant hatedom. There’s a reason why Sansa Stark is so controversial (besides her fateful decision to prize her loyalty to her Prince over her loyalty to her father): she is a deconstruction of the romantic tendency within fantasy genre as a fundamentally reactionary force. By this point, it’s not a very original thought, I know. A lot of people have pointed out that we’re supposed to find Sansa annoying because Sansa has been raised up to be what a Disney Princess would be in real life – naive to the point of obliviousness, ignorant and incurious, superficial both in the sense of being obsessed about her own appearance and judging others largely on theirs, and (to us) unbelievably passive – and that George R.R Martin is criticizing how gender is presented in fantasy. While it’s absolutely true that the romantic tendency has particular poisonous heritages when it comes to gender and race (and as I’ll discuss later, class as well), I think George R.R Martin is also critiquing the central concepts of the romantic tradition. Consider some of the things that Sansa believes because she has learned them through stories:
- Kings and Queens (and Princes) are inherently good and therefore deserve to be in power, and shouldn’t be questioned. We can see this most clearly in Sansa’s hero-worship of Queen Cersei, where she finds it difficult to conceive of refusing the Queen or even disliking her personally. This diverges quite a bit from her father’s more paternalistic conception of rulership, in which there’s a sense of an implicit social contract where the ruler should know his people and look out for their interest, which Arya is shown as having championed (more on this later).
- Beauty = Goodness. Sansa thoroughly believes that appearance and inner nature are one and the same; the good are beautiful and graceful, immorality is seen in the unsightly face of the wicked. Throughout this chapter, we see Sansa using this precept as her guide: it’s a huge part of her problems with her sister (Arya isn’t just plain-faced, but she’s messy and most importantly disorderly, and therefore slightly dangerous), it greatly influences her belief that Sandor Clegane is a “baddie” (just like the dastardly Ser Morgil) and Joffrey must be a gallant knight because he’s handsome, and it’s part of the reason why she reacts to Queen Cersei differently from King Robert (who no longer looks like a king ought).
- Good Things Happen to Good People. This comes up most often in Sansa’s fantasies of romantic tableaux of what should happen (a lovely day in the Queen’s wheelhouse, a romantic ride with her Prince) and her anger and confusion when outside forces conspire to ruin things for her. Beyond the obvious naivete of this belief, there’s a subtle conservativism here – unlike Arya, Sansa never really reacts to the fact that Mycah is mutilated at the hand of her Prince and later executed by the Hound; rather, her anger comes out when punishment is meted out on the “good dog.” In other words, the consequence of this kind of thinking is that it makes people accepting of suffering and injustice (bad things are happening to Mycah, therefore he must be bad, you can tell because he’s a dirty commoner) as well as passive.
These are ideas go beyond the problematic. To begin with, they lead to bad consequences, not just by the end of Game of Thrones where her father is murdered and Sansa becomes an abused captive, but almost immediately. Beyond that, I think George R.R Martin is arguing that they convince people to not just accept injustice as inevitable but to see the same act as just, and that they have done so in the past – because they are many of the same romantic ideals that legitimated the feudal order.
Historically, the ideal of chivalry was concocted to paper over a crisis in Western society that had emerged in the early Middle Ages: the Carolingian system, where a strong monarch would grant fiefdoms for loyal service, had the power to retract them for disloyalty, and received them back when the current titleholder died (thus allowing the central authority to enforce loyalty by keeping titleholders anxious about keeping their grants and non-titleholders believing that loyal service might get them lands) had broken down in favor of inherited lands that now left thousands of trained heavy cavalrymen destitute, with no central government to restrain them. The promulgation of the Catholic Church’s doctrine of Just War and Just Peace was intended to protect the lands and persons of the Church itself, with women and children tacked on very much as an afterthought. Critically, the prohibition on violence towards women and children largely applied to the nobility, who being “gently born” should be treated gently; the killing or robbery of the peasantry continued apace.
Likewise, the ideal of courtly love was designed to reconcile Marianism within the Church, the problematic role of landed and thus powerful women in a society that treated women as chattel, and the tension between the medieval Church’s impossible ideas about sex and marriage on the one hand, and on the other. The whole thing, which in some ways continues through to the logic behind of “rom coms,” is actually a weird parable about adultery rather than a stable relationship. Courtly love treats a breach in the social order as an acceptable inversion of power relations by filtering the whole thing through the lens of feudalism. The woman, who ensnares a man via attraction and then worship from afar, is declared the man’s liege lord, which is then followed by a ritual rejection. The knight, being rejected, falls literally love-sick to the point of death (a symbolic punishment for his destabilizing, excessive lust), and must then do heroic deeds in order to prove himself to his lady(again, echoing a knight’s service to his liege lord) before he is finally allowed consummation. And consummation occurs, it must be followed by subterfuge discovery, and death, so the natural order is restored. In other words, stories of courtly love allowed vicarious enjoyment of adultery while repeatedly reinforcing that breaking the rules = death; romance requires tragedy to elevate above sin. And again, lest we forget, none of this applies to 90% of women who don’t count as ladies. Finally, the idea that there are such things as good and “rightful” kings and “true” knights is an endorsement, however subtle, that the social order of feudalism is good and righteous and in some way ordained by God (when you consider that kings and knights both undergo ceremonies where they are specially anointed and denoted as agents of the divine), and that any attempt to change this would violate the Great Chain of Being. And this idea, which is so often accepted at face value within traditional “high” Fantasy (you can see equally cursory thinking about this when it comes to such disparate phenomena as the Star Wars movies, the Disney Princess franchise, or the Return of the King), is one that condemns 90%+ of the population as property, virtual property, or lesser kinds of men than those of “noble blood.” If you’re of European origin or nationality, chances are that would have meant you. And sure enough, the one peasant who appears in this chapter receives the full brunt of medieval justice from “good” King Robert in the form of the Hound.
And at the end of the day, what happens in the very first chapter? The handsome prince turns into a date-rapey, sadistic psychopath and coward; the Good Queen turns into a vindictive, manipulative would-be tyrant; the Good King accepts an injustice in his name; and the knights either stand around or run down the only named peasant we meet this chapter, who dies in the name of royal injustice.
Finding historical parallels for young women in medieval societies isn’t the easiest thing to do. However, in Sansa’s case, I think the best historical parallel is Anne Neville. The daughter of a powerful Northern lord, himself Edward IV’s Hand of the King in all but name and renowned as a man who took it upon himself to decide who would become King of England, Anne Neville was engaged at various times both to Prince Edward of Lancaster and Richard (later the III), Duke of York. Like Sansa torn between her captivity and marriage into the House of Lannister, Anne Neville found herself split between the House of Lancaster and the House of York; and just as Sansa found herself married to a skilled administrator with bad publicity and a rumored deformity, Anne Neville found herself married to Richard III, that much-maligned and recently-disinterred monarch. If anything, this should make us even more sympathetic to Sansa’s situation. Both in literature and history, noblewomen were used both as marriage tokens and hostages (although the difference between the two is hard to spot). Far more worldly, willful, and experienced women than Sansa found their agency and free will curtailed at the hands of their enemies and their families.
Oddly enough, the decision of Sansa to skive off with Joffrey and eventually go walking down by the riverbank is actually one of the more important turning points in Game of Thrones. The intersection of Arya, Sansa, Joffrey, Mycah, and Nymeria have huge consequences that ripple outwards through the rest of the series. And, like many events revolving around violence and children, there are many potential outcomes, none of them good.
- What If Joffrey had connected with his sword? Either killing or seriously wounding Arya had the potential to massively shift the plot. Had this happened, the Stark-Baratheon marriage is off, and probably Eddard Stark’s Handship as well. This changes the political calculus dramatically – Robert’s out a Hand, and the Starks are out of pocket (which makes life difficult for Renly, but also for the Lannisters since the Starks start out less exposed, and Varys and Littlefinger no longer have a Hand to steer).
- What If Joffrey dies? Cersei goes on a rampage, which could start a hot war right on the spot, but the long-term picture is problematic. She could get away with rushing the coronation of Joffrey to forestall Eddard Stark, but no one is going to buy Tommen in charge, which means she can’t get rid of Robert anytime soon. On the other hand, without a sneering psychopath on the Throne, the people of King’s Landing might be less rebellious – or might direct their hatred entirely towards the “evil councilors,” allowing Cersei more leverage to dump Hands and/or Small Councils.
- What If Lady is there, or survives? If Lady is on the spot and acts protectively when Joffrey loses his temper, it’s possible that Joffrey gets backed off without serious harm. This probably defuses the immediate crisis, as no one’s going to kill butcher’s boys or wolves because of a stick to the back. At the same time, Lady surviving and/or Nymeria not being driven off has some interesting possibilities down the line: if Nymeria is on the scene when Syrio and Arya’s last lesson gets interrupted, there’s a shot that Syrio’s death gets butterflied and Arya gets out of King’s Landing at least a couple days earlier than OTL. Likewise, the survival of Lady could mean that Sansa now has the wolf equivalent of a one-shot pistol in dealing with the many threats of violence she’s faced with immediately after Cersei’s coup.
Book vs. TV:
The differences between the book and the show for this chapter aren’t that many: Arya and Sansa’s conversation about looking for Rhaegar’s rubies was filmed for auditions but never used (perhaps for time reasons?) which means we get less of the sisters’ interactions. Joffrey’s violence is toned down significantly; in the book, he goes for Arya in a sustained and deliberate attempt on her life, backing her all the way up to the tree-line.
The biggest difference I’d say is how we’re introduced to Renly. To begin with, in the book, Renly appears in this very different context and is immediately set up as a character the audience identifies with (he’s funny, he’s mocking the Lannisters at their most hateful), and he’s set up as an opponent to Cersei and Joffrey. In my opinion, this makes his offer to Eddard seem more promising, and would have heightened the reaction when he’s killed by Melisandre. Even more than his introduction, the change in his personality and appearance is quite dramatic. In the first book, Renly is portrayed as a young Robert, butch and warrior-like, perhaps a bit dandyish in his love of fine clothes and snarky putdowns, but much more conventionally masculine. At least in my eyes, this is actually a much more subversive portrayal – George R.R Martin sets up the very image of a “Good King,” literally Robert stripped of his flaws and his realism, and then in Book 2 gives him a massive army ready to save the day, a beautiful queen, a band of heroic knights, everything short of a Round Table, and then upends your expectations completely. The (mostly) macho warrior turns out to be gay and masculine at the same time, the “good King” turns out to be just as underhanded and scheming as anyone else, his marriage is a quasi-incestuous fraud, and everything is going to fall apart.